Bitterness in the Cameron Highlands: When Backpacking Feels Like Life Failure

BOH tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
The beautiful Cameron Highlands, looking deceptively non-damp.
I knew that it would come to this: travel burnout, cynicism, general despair. But maybe not 2.5 months into our trip, 1.5 months into the Asia portion.

Still, you don't choose your low times. For my boyfriend Miguel and I, it came during three days in the Cameron Highlands, a mountainous area 1500 metres above sea level in central Malaysia. I was really excited to go. 

We'd just finished a Workaway volunteer project and were looking forward to having our own space and a few days to be tourists. The Brits turned the land into a holiday place and producer of tea, strawberries and other non-Malaysian type crops. How could I not love a place where I could let out my inner Englishwoman? I envisaged myself having elegant high teas with crumbly scones, touring tea plantations, reading by flashlight in our jungle bungalow and enjoying slow walks on the local trails.

Instead, it rained for a good part of the three days we were there and poor Miguel came down with an infection on his knee. Meaning, we weren't going no where. Fine, but relaxing is awfully difficult when your 'rustic' bungalow smells like a a culturing ground for mold, a dainty crop of mushrooms are establishing themselves in your bathroom and everything is so doggone damp that touching any surface is like chillaxing on under-dried clothes.

Awful. Awful awful awful. I quickly came to HATE this place of never-ending rain, damp and chill. Note to self, do not visit England. Ever! Miguel and I grumpily sequestered ourselves in Starbucks which was the only place in 50 km that felt dry and warm.

Scones and tea at the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
Eating all my feelings.
Still, like all aversions there was a lot more going on under the surface than just bodily discomfort. I spent seven days at a silent meditation retreat where I slept on a board, took showers from a bucket, and didn't eat after noon. I was fine.

No, the real crux of the problem revealed itself when we had to hitchhike from the bus drop off to our destination: a tea plantation. Cabs were ridiculously expensive and Miguel couldn't walk because of his knee.

Now, I'm the world's worst hitchhiker. I will accept a ride if someone offers it but I hate asking for one -- not because I'm afraid someone will make me into meat confetti but because it makes me feel like a vagabond.

Lately I've been feeling all kinds of vagabond:
  1. No job
  2. No property
  3. No marriage/children that might earn me social stature (and happiness! of course!)
  4. No life plan
  5. No fancy possessions that might buffer me from life's ills (save my two Apple products. I will DIE if they die. This is sad, I know).
  6. No social standing (from something ... I don't know)
So there I was standing by the side of the road. I hadn't showered for two days. Pretty broke and just eking out a living from random writing work. Emotional shit up the ying-yang. Dressed like freaking backpacking Barbie in my pink and grey outfit. Angry. Pissed off. And now hitchhiking. 

Proceed towards tantrum. Poor Miguel.

Then suddenly a white pick-up appears. Miguel takes the initiative and scores us a ride. We hop in the back with a bunch of giggling Singaporean girls who work at a jewelry store together. We get to the plantation, ogle the amazing green fields, drink fancy tea with tarts and are generally fine. The pick-up takes us back and we find a cab the rest of the way.

Indian food in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
Indian food is my favorite and Malaysia really delivers. The CH weren't ALL bad.
In a nutshell, I'm supposed to be 'working on myself' on this 'great trip.' Peeling away all but the basic necessities to reveal deeper core needs. Instead, I'm feeling mostly like I swallowed a lot of self-help bullshit about finding myself and am actually pissing away my time being poor. 

Backpacking = glorified poverty
Glorified poverty = actual poverty
Actual poverty = no one wants this

So I feel stupid for going on my little fake slumming-it experience. And mad because I actually do want something intangible and life-changing out of this experience.

It's a lot of feelings!

We're now in the capital of Kuala Lumpur and paying up the arse for a fancy hostel where there's a rooftop bar, drinking water, great wifi, schmacy digs and no mushrooms in the bathroom (eww). It's clean, it's warm, we're re-evaluating exactly what we want from this trip


Anonymous said...

Just a tab bit offensive. Actual poverty = not you. Temporary middle class poverty isn't poverty, even if all your shit fit in a backpack.
Get some perspective.
Other than that, appreciated the honesty.

Lilje said...

Well written, thanks! It's always a joy to read travel blogs from people who are past their teenage and still far from settled, and not afraid to write candidly and honestly about their experiences. Will be following you on your journey! We did enjoy Cameron Highlands on our brief trip there last year (it was a nice cool-off after the normal Southeast Asian heat), but we also lucked out with the weather. I can imagine it to be completely horrible when it's raining all the time. Glad you were at least able to have some scones! :)

B.Kienapple said...

Hi Anonymous, you're right. I'm in a position where if I take a financial tumble it's not likely to be permanent. So there is a real difference I didn't pick up on.

B.Kienapple said...

Thanks Liljetys! I think we would have enjoyed the CH more if the weather was better and we'd booked into a decent place. Sometimes your experience is totally coloured by circumstance, methinks. Glad you had a great time there!

Gregory said...

In the last entry you brought back memories. Now I want to go to SEA again immediately and see all the places I have missed. Also I swear that the food and the sun there made me feel better and healthier than I feel normally.

A friend told me to use if I go there again for cheap flights. (But not the rooms, you should book them in advance.)


Jonah Walsh Blog said...

Great post thhank you


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